Grapes are coming into their own. Hanging in buxom bunches of purple and green, they weigh down vines on arbours and over garden fences as much as they do along the well tended lines of the region’s vineyards.
Some of these suffered atrociously in early summer from entirely unexpected attacks by extreme weather, grapes crushed under a sudden burst of hail in some vineyards, in others by localised and ferocious windstorms that had no effect on vines under a kilometre away, and which blew themselves out almost as soon as they had begun. Up to 90 percent of grapes were lost in June on several estates in the wider south west region if France.
But winemakers tend to be a philosophical set of people. With or without climate change, putting your faith in nature and hoping it will be on your side when setting out to make wine is one of life's great perils.
Wine-making has been done for centuries. The oldest known winery goes all the way back to 4000 BC, in Armenia, while as many as 8000 years ago, there was an established viticulture culture in neighbouring Georgia.
Grapes are full of all kinds of health-giving multi-syllabic properties in unpronounceable combinations. Most recently popular was resveratrol which some touted as being a life extender, though there isn’t any strong scientific evidence yet to back that claim. Any excuse for a glass.
The so-called ‘French paradox’ - that phenomenon of red-meat eating, red-wine drinking that seems to protect the French from the heart-related diseases bringing down other cultures - probably has less to do with the protective qualities of wine than the sensible manner in which the French eat, that is to say, slowly, at table among friends and family, not on the run or in the car, with better balanced plates of considered components, served in much smaller portions than, say, in America.
Grapes are enormously versatile. They aren’t just for crushing for barrel fermentation or draping by the bunch into the fruit bowl. From them is produced not only jam and jellies and juice, but also vinegar and grapeseed oil. And don’t forget raisins.
Though sweet, grapes have a valuable place in savoury recipes. Their acidity can point up and counterbalance rich dishes cooked in butter or cream. Throw a handful into a gratin of brussels sprouts in a Gruyere cheese sauce then brown it under the grill. Or tone down a sauteed shrimp and rice dish that has been highly and deliciously spiced with a mix of toasted-and-ground cumin seed, fennel seed and Piment d’Espelette. You can roast red grapes and set them on slices of toasted baguette slathered in Bleu d’Auvergne to eat with your evening aperitif in the autumn sunshine. And don’t forget how well they go in a chilled, mayonnaise-dressed, salad of chunks of turkey or chicken breast on endive and watercress leaves under a scattering of toasted almonds.
Here is a dish, easy to put together, that makes an impressive and delicious course at both a formal dinner and a relaxed family supper, depending on the elegant platter or rustic bowl you present it in.
Wine-braised chicken with roasted grapes
- 4 medium onions, peeled
- 600g potatoes, peeled
- 2 large heads of fennel
- 1.5kg free-range chicken, jointed into 8 pieces
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- ½ bunch fresh rosemary, leaves roughly chopped
- 300ml white wine
- 200ml chicken stock
- 1 head of garlic, cut through the middle into 2
- 1 lemon, scrubbed and thinly sliced
- 2 handfuls red grapes, preferably seedless
- Leaves from a few sprigs of fresh flat-leaf parsley
Preheat oven 190C.
Cut onions into wedges, roughly chop potatoes. Shave fennel bulbs with a potato peeler then cut into six pieces, keeping layers attached to base.
Season chicken. Heat oil in a large saucepan over a medium heat. Working in batches, add chicken and fry until gold all over then remove to a plate. Add more oil if needed.
Reduce heat to medium-low, add onions and fennel and saute gently until soft but not coloured, about 15 minutes. Return chicken to pan, add rosemary, raise heat to medium-high and leave chicken to colour a few minutes.
Pour in wine and bring to boil, then lower heat and reduce by half. Add stock and potatoes. Insert garlic halves between chicken pieces and bring pan gently back to boil.
Transfer all to a roasting tray, slip lemon slices between chicken pieces and vegetables. Roast 30 minutes or until potatoes are tender and chicken cooked through.
After 10 minutes, put the grapes in a small roasting dish, drizzle with a little oil and roast in oven for the last 20 minutes or until caramelised. Fold grapes into chicken. Pick off and roughly chop parsley leaves, scatter over and serve.
This column written by Julia Watson originally appeared in the September 2019 edition of The Bugle.